Exalted Ruler

At 1:35a.m. on a hot July night last summer, an undercover state liquor agent shelled out $7 to a doorman named Willie to gain access through the back door of one of the oldest speakeasies in the city.

Although the bar at the William H. Patterson Elks Lodge at 1007 South Seventh Avenue was supposed to be closed a half-hour earlier, the joint was hopping.

What happened next could have changed the outcome of last fall's District 8 Phoenix City Council race. But the information -- though public record since August 14 -- was never reported until now.

"The club was full of patrons with all tables occupied and no seats available at the bar," the agent's report states.

A lodge employee directed the agent to a booth across the room, where a woman was selling coupons for $5 that could be exchanged for a drink. Rather than wait in line behind five customers, the agent went back to the bar and was asked by a man in a white suit if he wanted a drink.

"I replied 'A vodka with 7-Up' and gave him a five dollar bill," the agent's report states.

A woman bartender poured an Absolut vodka and handed the agent the drink. He took a sip, confirming it contained liquor.

Moments later, uniformed Phoenix police officers entered the nightclub, and liquor agents began interviewing lodge employees.

Bartender Tina Flemons told investigators she had been working at the club for five or six years. The lodge, she said, had been conducting after-hours sales of alcohol on Friday and Saturday for "years."

Drink coupon broker Erma Glasco told agents she had been working at the lodge on Friday nights since 1996, selling drink coupons from 1 a.m. until 3:30 a.m. Glasco said liquor prices increased after 1 a.m.

Glasco was asked if she knew who controlled the lodge's liquor license.

"Ms. Glasco said she did not know who the licensee is but stated the club is under the direction of Michael Johnson, who she referred to as the 'exalted ruler,'" the agent's report states.

"Exalted ruler" is not the only lofty title bestowed on Michael Johnson.

The 47-year-old retired Phoenix cop is better known as newly elected Phoenix City Councilman Michael E. Johnson.

Johnson has been the exalted ruler -- the equivalent of president -- of the lodge since January 1996 and a member of its board of directors since 1988.

During this period, the Elks Lodge compiled a long, notorious history of illegal gambling, after-hours drinking and incomplete disclosure of its financial records. For a period in the 1990s, the lodge was overrun by gangs that turned the parking lot into a shooting gallery.

Johnson's fellow police officers were on high alert when responding to calls at the club because of its violent nature.

Johnson admits the club has a troublesome past, but says he's worked hard to clean up the lodge, and that illegal activities stopped long ago.

"We have made a big turnaround, a big turnaround," Johnson says. "There were some big problems there, and I said, 'We can take this on and do something about it, or we can let it die out.'"

If Johnson is proud of his association with the club, he didn't make it widely known during last year's election campaign. He failed to disclose his membership on the nonprofit board of directors of the club on his personal financial disclosure statement filed with the city.

While the lodge has made strides in reducing violence that plagued the club, reports of illegal after-hours drinking and illegal gambling persist.

On March 20, the state Department of Liquor Licenses and Control slapped the lodge with a two-count citation alleging illegal gambling. It's the second time the lodge has been hit with gambling charges since Johnson became exalted ruler.

Johnson says there was no illegal gambling taking place in the lodge. The club, he says, was simply offering the high scorer each week on a video game machine free lottery tickets.

"There was no payoff," Johnson insists. "I didn't think there was no harm in that."

State liquor department director Myran Musfeldt says awarding lottery tickets to the players constitutes gambling.

The case sets up a showdown between the state liquor department and a Phoenix city councilman.

Musfeldt promises that Johnson's political power will not sway the department's action.

"We are not treating the lodge any differently, that's the bottom line," he says.

Johnson's longtime leadership role in an organization enmeshed with nefarious activities should have become a major campaign issue.

In last fall's primary, four of the nine candidates had their campaigns seriously damaged by widespread media reports of illegal or unethical activities. One candidate had been sent to prison, another used an alias and false social security number, a third was slapped with liens and a fourth faced allegations of living outside the district.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty